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Robert Gehrke: Once again, inland port leaders are proving they don’t want to consider public concerns

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Since its inception, the inland port project has been a case study in brute political force, demonstrating what can happen when those in power are indifferent to those standing in their way.

Sure, the leaders of the port talk a good game. They profess to care what the residents on Salt Lake City’s west side think about the massive development that has been forced on unwilling residents. They pretend to listen and pay lip service to the concerns.

And then, they go about doing exactly what they wanted to do in the first place.

The latest demonstration of this sham process, as reported by my colleague Taylor Stevens last week, is the decision to kick two prominent representatives of west side neighborhoods out of the inland port’s community advisory council, as well as the environment, air quality and sustainability subcommittee.

The two who were unceremoniously jettisoned — Westpointe Community Council Board Chairwoman Dorothy Owen and former Westside Coalition leader Richard Holman — were not some raving anti-port firebrands.

They were realists, who recognized the freight train is moving and it’s better to be on board, helping to make sure it heads someplace slightly less bad, than standing in front of it destined to get run over.

“We were skeptical [of the advisory boards] from the outset,” Deeda Seed, an outspoken opponent of the port, with the Center for Biological Diversity, “but Dorothy and Richard said, ‘Yes,’ and they went forward in good faith and they were thinking a lot about it and trying to offer suggestions.”

They wanted a better outcome and what they got was a terse letter informing them their perspective was no longer wanted.

The port authority was moving “in a different direction in regards to the environment, air quality and sustainability subcommittee.”

The two community members were replaced with Kesa Vakapuna, who owns a construction business within the port boundary, and Laura Nelson, former energy adviser to the governor and now with FJ Management, the parent company of Maverik, Flying J truck stops and Big West oil refinery.

So two voices for the communities directly impacted by the port development are replaced with two members with a stake in the development of the port.

Members of the Port Authority Board were evidently kept in the dark about the change and two — Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, who is the chairman of the port board, and Rachel Otto, chief of staff to Mayor Erin Mendenhall — wrote a letter raising concerns about the ouster of Owen and Holman and the manner in which the port authority conducts business. They wanted an explanation for the move.

The response from Executive Director Jack Hedge and Chief Operating Officer Jill Flygare was barbed and condescending, taking exception to Otto’s and Rogers’ characterization of the authority’s “institutional integrity.”

But a clear pattern has developed, where local voices and legitimate concerns about air quality, noise, traffic and health are seen as little more than a speed bump in the pursuit of building 152 million square feet of warehouse space.

It took the intervention of state Sen. Luz Escamilla, who represents the area, to even get air quality monitoring around the facility.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, the inland port will be great — a boon to the economy, an asset to the state and maybe it will run on clean unicorn power. Perhaps the “spoke-and-hub” model they are pursuing, with the potential for satellite ports around the state, will ease strain around Salt Lake City while providing some opportunity for badly needed rural economic development.

Perhaps.

I can say for certain that this project will be better for the state and better for west side residents if the inland port leaders listened to people like Owen and Holman. Given the problematic origins of the port, the process has to be even more inclusive, more responsive and more transparent in order to get any sort of public support.

“It has been a constant refrain: ‘We care about you, we want to work with you, it’s going to be great.’ And then what do they do?” said Seed. “We like to talk about ‘the Utah Way.’ There needs to be some ‘Utah Way’ stuff happening that is meaningful.”

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